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POETRY OF LIFE.
CHARACTERISTICS OF POETRY.
THAT the quality of modern Poetry is a subject of general complaint with those who would purchase-that the price affixed to it by the judgment of the public is equally complained of by those who would sell-in short, that Poetry is at present "a drug in the market," is a phrase too hackneyed, too vulgar and too frequently assented too, to need repetition here; except as an established fact, the nature, cause, and consequence of which, I propose endeavouring to point out in the following pages.
Wherever a taste for Poetry exists, there will be a desire to read as well as to write; to receive as well as to impart that enjoyment which poetic feeling affords. In other cases of marketable produce, the supply is found to keep pace with the demand, except when physical causes operate against it. If the poets of the present day have "written themselves out," as the common and unmeaning expression is, what, with a rapidly increasing population, should hinder the springing up of fresh poets to delight the world? The fact is, that most of the living poets have betaken themselves to Prose as a more lucrative employment, thus proving, that the taste for Poetry is lamentably decreasing in the public mind; and while on one hand, genius is weeping over her harvest "whitening in the sun," without hope of profit to repay the toil of gathering in the golden store; on the other, criticism is in arms against less sordid adventurers, and calls in no measured terms upon the mighty minstrels of past ages to avenge Parnassus of her wrongs.
Three different motives operate in stimu
lating men to write Poetry: the love of fame, the want of money, and an internal restlessness of feeling, which is too indiscriminately called genius. The first of these ceases with the second, for without the means of circulation there can be no hope of fame. The third alone operates in the present day, and small, indeed, is the recompense bestowed in these ungrateful times upon the poets who write because they cannot help it. Yet after all, is not this the true and legitimate method by which the genuine coin of genius is moulded? The love of fame is a high and soul-stirring principle, but still it is degraded with the stigma of selfish aggrandizement, and who does not feel that a shade is cast upon those expressions of noble sentiment, which bear the impress of having been prepared and set forth solely for public approbation. The want of money is, indeed, a potent stimulus. How potent let the midnight labours of the starving poet testify. The want of money may it is true, urge onward towards the same goal as the love of fame, but the one operates, as it were, from behind, by the painful application of a goad; while the other attracts, and fascinates by the brightness of some object before, which too often proves to be an ignis fatuus in the distance. But there is within the human mind an active and powerful principle, that awakens the dormant faculties, lights up the brain, and launches forth imagination to gather up from the wide realm of nature the very essence of what every human bosom pines for, when it aspires to a higher state of existence, and feels the insufficiency of this. It is this heaven-born and ethereal principle, not inaptly personified as the Spirit of Poesy, that weaves a garland of the flowers which
imagination has culled; and from the fer- | the human mind with all the advantages af
vency of its own passion, to impart as well as to receive enjoyment, casts this garland at the feet of the sordid and busy multitude, who pause, not to admire, but trample its vivid beauty in the dust. It is this principle that will not let the intellectual faculties remain inactive, but is for ever working in the laboratory of the brain, combining, sublimating, and purifying. It is this principle, when under the government of right reason, which is properly called genius. It is this principle when perverted from its high purpose, and made the minister of base passions, which produces the most splendid and most melancholy ruin. It is this principle, when devoted to the cause of holiness, which scatters over the path of desolation flowers of unfading loveliness: pours floods of light upon our distant prospects of the celestial city; and inspires the harps of heaven-taught minstrels with undying melody.
This principle, in less figurative phraseology, I would describe as the Poetry of Life; because it pervades all things either seen, felt, or understood, where the associations are sublime, beautiful and tender, or refined. In short, where the ideas which naturally connect themselves with our contemplation of such subjects are most exclusively intellectual, and separate from sense.
That there is much Poetry in real life, with all its sorrows, and pains, and sordid anxieties, and that "all is not vanity and vexation of spirit under the sun," to him who can honestly and innocently enjoy the commonest blessings of Providence," has been already proved by one in whose steps I feel that I am unworthy to walk; but since, in his admirable lectures on Poetry, he has treated the subject as a science, rather than a principle; I am imboldened to take up the theme, to which he, above all men (more especially above all women) would have done justice, had he chosen to launch forth into more abstruse and speculative notions respecting the nature and influence of poetic feeling.
That the poetry of the present times is an unsaleable article needs then no farther proof than the observation and experience of every day, and since it is as difficult to believe that
forded by the most enlightened state of civilization should have become more base and degenerate, as that the treasury of nature should be exhausted, it becomes a subject of curious and interesting investigation to search out the cause, and ascertain whether it may not be in some measure attributable to our present system of education being one of words rather than of ideas, of the head rather than of the heart, of calculation rather than moral feeling.
While the full and free tide of knowledge is daily pouring from the press, while books and book makers appear before us in every possible situation, and under all imaginable circumstances, so that to have written a volume, is no less a distinction than to have read one through; while cheap and popular publications fraught with all manner of interesting details are accessible to the poorest classes of the community, it is impossible to believe that there is not sufficient talent concentrated or afloat to constitute a poet. And while the blue sky bends over all-while that sky is studded with the same bright host of stars, amongst which the philosopher is perpetually discovering fresh worlds of glory; while the seasons with their infinite variety still continue to bring forth, to vivify, and to perfect the produce of the earth; while the woods are vocal with melody, and the air is peopled with myriads of ephemeral beings whose busy wings are dipped in gold, or bathed in azure, or light and fragile as the gossomer, yet ever bearing them on through a region of delight, from the snowy bosom of the lily, to the scented atmosphere of the rose; while the mountain stream rushes down from the hills, or the rivers roll onward to the sea; and above all, while there exists in the heart of man a deep sense of these enjoyments—a mirror in which beauty is reflected-an echo to the voice of music; while he is capable of feeling admiration for that which is noble or sublime, tenderness for the weak, sympathy for the suffering, and affection for all things lovely, it is impossible to believe that true poetry should cease to please, or fail to awaken a response in the human heart. And that man is capable of all this, and more, and more capable in proportion as he
cultivates and cherishes the noblest faculties of his nature, we have to thank the Giver of all our enjoyments, the Creator of all our capabilities.
How are these faculties now cultivated? "Knowledge is power." But neither is knowledge all that we live for, nor power all that we enjoy. There are deep mysteries in the book of nature which all can feel, but none will ever understand until the veil of mortality shall be withdrawn. There are stirrings in the soul of man which constitute the very essence of his being, and which power can neither satisfy nor subdue. Yet this mystery reveals more truly than the clearest proofs or mightiest deductions of science, that a master hand has been for ages, and is still at work, above, beneath, and around us; and this moving principle is for ever reminding us that in our nature we inherit the germs of a future existence over which time has no influence, and the grave no victory.
Far be it from every liberal mind to maintain the superiority of feeling over the other faculties of our nature. In forming a correct opinion on any subject of taste, it is necessary to examine, compare, and criticise, with an eye familiarized to what is most admirable, and a judgment controlled by a strict adherence to the rules of art. No argument is required to prove that were feeling allowed to be the sole impulse of our actions, we should become as culpable in morals, as absurd in our pursuits; or that the man gifted with the quickest perceptions and keenest sensibility, yet untutored in scientific rules, would expose himself to well-merited ridicule, should he attempt in a poem or a picture, to delineate his own conceptions of grandeur or beauty. Even were he able to throw into his performance the force of the most daring genius, or the most inextinguishable enthusiasm, it would prove in the end, no better than a mockery of art, and remain a memorial of his own madness and folly. Nor, on the other hand, will he who is by nature destitute of sensibility, or he who has spent the spring-time of existence in the crowded city, and expended all the fresh energies of his mind in the bustle and hurry of sordid occupations, having laid up no secret store of associations with what is
noble, lovely or refined in nature, be able to produce a poem or a picture that will please the imagination or warm the heart, even though in his laboured performance, the critic should find no fault with the harmony of his numbers, the choice of his colouring, or the subjects of both.
The qualifications of a true poet are, in the first place, natural capacity, and favourable opportunity for receiving impressions; and in the second, ability to arrange, compare, and select from these impressions. Without the former, he must be deficient in materials for his work; without the latter, he must want the power to make a rational use of any materials whatever. It is the former alone that we can suppose to be wanting in the present day; for though the human mind unquestionably retains the same capabilities it possessed in the last century, it is possible that opportunities for imbibing strong impressions from external nature may not now be afforded with the same facility; and that in the present rapid march of intellect, the muse of poesy may be so hurried out of breath, as not to find time to chant her charmed lays.
The same causes which tend to destroy that taste, which would ensure to the works of our poets a welcome reception in refined and intellectual circles of society, necessarily operate against the production of poetry; and thus, while we refuse to feast our minds with ideas of the sublime and beautiful, we must naturally lose the higher sensibilities and finer perceptions of our nature. To awaken these sensibilities, and quicken these perceptions, by pointing out what it is which constitutes the poetry of life, will be the task of the writer through the following pages; to prove, that in order to see, think, or write poetically, it is necessary that we should at some period of our lives, have had time and opportunity to receive deep and lasting impressions; and that out of these impressions is woven the interminable chain of association which connects our perceptions of things present, with our ideas or conceptions of those which are remote.
In commencing a serious and arduous task, it would ill become an accountable agent to neglect the important inquiry of what may be the moral good of such an un
dertaking; and here the question will naturally occur to many, whether poetry is of any real value in promoting the happiness of man. England is a commercial country, and we know that poetry has little to do with increasing the facilities of commerce, as little as with the better regulation of the poor laws, or with the settlement of any of those leading questions which at present agitate the political world. But poetry has a world of its own a world in which, if sordid calculations have no place, the noble, the immortal part of our nature is cherished, invi- | gorated and refined.
In touching upon this inspiring theme, it is impossible not to feel the inadequacy of moderate powers when compared with those of perhaps the most luminous writers of the present day, whose review of Milton's works contains in direct relation to this subject, the following eloquent and inimitable appeal to the highest feelings of human nature. I quote at great length, because I would not break the charm of the whole passage by garbled extracts; and I risk the quotation at the peril of having the rest of my book contrasted with these pages, like a chaplet of mock gems, in which is one true diamond.
"Milton's fame rests chiefly on his poetry, and to this we naturally give our first attention. By those who are apt to speak of poety as light reading, Milton's eminence in this sphere may be considered as only giving him a high rank among the contributors to public amusement. Not so thought Milton. Of all God's gifts of intellect, he esteemed poetical genius the most transcendant. He esteemed it in himself as a kind of inspiration, and wrote his great works with something of the conscious dignity of a prophet. We agree with Milton in his estimate of poetry. It seems to us the divinest of all arts; for it is the breathing or expression of that principle or sentiment, which is deepest and sublimest in human nature; we mean of that thirst or aspiration, to which no mind is wholly a stranger, for something purer and lovelier, something more powerful, lofty, and thrilling than ordinary and real life affords. No doctrine is more common among Christians than that of man's immortality, but it is not so generally understood, that the germs or principles of his whole future being
are now wrapped up in his soul, as the rudiments of the future plant in the seed. As a necessary result of this constitution, the soul, possessed and moved by these mighty, though infant energies, is perpetually stretching beyond what is present and visible, struggling against the bounds of its earthly prison-house, and seeking relief and joy in imaginings of unseen and ideal being.
This view of our nature which has never been fully developed, and which goes farther towards explaining the contradictions of human life than all others, carries us to the very foundation and sources of poetry. He, who cannot interpret by his own consciousness what we have now said, wants the true key to works of genius. He has not penetrated those sacred recesses of the soul, where poetry is born and nourished, and inhales immortal vigour, and wings herself for her heavenward flight. In an intellectual nature, framed for progress, and for higher modes of being, there must be creative energies, powers of original, and ever-growing thought; and poetry is the form in which these energies are chiefly manifested. It is the glorious prerogative of this art, that it makes all things new' for the gratification of a divine instinct. It indeed finds its elements in what it actually sees and experiences, in the worlds of matter and mind, but it combines and blends these into new forms, and according to new affinities; breaks down, if we may so say, the distinctions and bounds of nature; imparts to material objects life, and sentiment, and emotion, and invests the mind with the powers and splendours of the outward creation ; describes the surrounding universe in the colours which the passions throw over it, and depicts the mind in those modes of repose or agitation, of tenderness or sublime emotion, which manifest its thirst for a more powerful and joyful existence. To a man of a literal and prosaic character, the mind may seem lawless in these workings; but it observes higher laws than it transgresses, the laws of the immortal intellect; it is trying and developing its best faculties; and in the objects which it describes, or in the emotions which it awakens, anticipates those states of progressive power, splendour, beauty and happiness, for which it was created.
"We accordingly believe that poetry, so far from injuring society, is one of the great instruments of its refinement and exaltation. It lifts the mind above ordinary life; gives it a respite from depressing cares, and awakens the consciousness of its affinity with what is pure and noble. In its legitimate and highest efforts, it has the same tendency and aim with Christianity; that is, to spiritualize our nature. True, poetry has been made the instrument of vice, the pander of bad passions; but when genius thus stoops, it dims its fires, and parts with much of its power; and even when poetry is enslaved to licentiousness or misanthropy, she cannot wholly forget her true vocation. Strains of pure feeling, touches of tenderness, images of innocent happiness, sympathies with suffering virtue, bursts of scorn or indignation at the hollowness of the world, passages true to our moral nature, often escape in an immoral work, and show us how hard it is for a gifted spirit to divorce itself wholly from what is good. Poetry has a natural alliance with our best affections. It delights in the beauty and sublimity of the outward creation and of the soul. It indeed portrays with terrible energy the excesses of the passions; but they are passions which show a mighty nature, which are full of power, which command awe, and excite a deep, though shuddering sympathy. Its great tendency and purpose is, to carry the mind beyond and above the beaten, dusty, weary walks of ordinary life; to lift it into a purer element; and to breathe into it more profound and generous emotion. It reveals to us the loveliness of nature, brings back the freshness of youthful feeling, revives the relish of simple pleasures, keeps unquenched the enthusiasm which warmed the springtime of our being, refines youthful love, strengthens our interest in human nature by vivid delineations of its tenderest and loftiest feeling, knits us by new ties with universal being, and through the brightness of its prophetic visions, helps faith to lay hold on the future life.
"We are aware that it is objected to poetry, that it gives wrong views, and excites false expectations of life; peoples the mind with shadows and illusions, and builds up imagination on the ruins of wisdom. That
there is a wisdom against which poetry wars, the wisdom of the senses, which makes physical comfort and gratification the supreme good, and wealth the chief interest of life, we do not deny; nor do we deem it the least service which poetry renders to mankind, that it redeems them from the thraldom of this earth-born prudence. But passing over this topic, we would observe, that the complaint against poetry as abounding in illusion and deception, is in the main, groundless. In many poems, there is more truth than in many histories and philosophic theories. The fictions of genius are often the vehicles of the sublimest verities, and its flashes often open new regions of thought, and throw new light on the mysteries of our being. In poetry, the letter is falsehood, but the spirit is often profoundest wisdom. And if truth thus dwells in the boldest fictions of the poet, much more may it be expected in his delineations of life; for the present life, which is the first stage of the immortal mind, abounds in the materials of poetry; and it is the high office of the bard to detect this divine element among the grosser labours and pleasures of our earthly being. The present life is not wholly prosaic, precise, tame, and finite. To the gifted eye, it abounds in the poetic. The affections which spread beyond ourselves, and stretch far into futurity; the workings of mighty passions, which seem to arm the soul with almost super-human energy; the innocent and irrepressible joy of infancy; the bloom, and buoyancy, and dazzling hopes of youth; the throbbings of the heart, when it first wakes to love, and dreams of a happiness too vast for earth; woman, with her beauty, and grace, and gentleness, and fulness of feeling, and depth of affection, and her blushes of purity, and the tones and looks which only a mother's heart can inspire;-these are all poetical. It is not true that the poet paints a life which does not exist; he only extracts and concentrates, as it were, life's ethercal essence; arrests and condenses its volatile fragrance, brings together its scattered beauties, and prolongs its more refined but evanescent joys; and in this he does well; for it is good to feel that life is not wholly usurped by cares for subsistence, and physical gratifications, but admits, in measures which may be in